Guest post by my sister Rebecca…
I wasn’t sure that I would ever be able to write this. It’s been five years and, frankly, I’m still not sure.
Cancer came into our lives like a tsunami. No one expected it. But then one day, there we were in a doctor’s office looking out over a field of half-dead brown grass, listening to a doctor apologize to Rachel (and me maybe? Unclear. He was a really weird dude.) and then diagnose her with inflammatory breast cancer. I remember sitting very still, my tongue pressed to the back of my teeth, holding my breath, as time seemed to warp around the room like some kind of new quantum reality; an infinite dizzying pause.
We were the villagers on the shore watching as the water began to slowly recede and the giant wave took shape on the horizon. Something terrible was coming and it was happening in a blur but also in the most excruciating slow motion. In the days and weeks that followed, the wave got bigger and stronger with edges that were more clearly defined and more terrifying than we could have imagined. When it finally crashed down and our lives became engulfed in chemo treatments, Mediport placement (and removal), wound packing, dressing changing, Picc line flushing and the million other chores cancer demands of you, I was sure I would drown. I almost wanted to.
My brain had no framework for imagining a life without my sister. I have never lived in a world without her and hadn’t ever entertained the notion that I would have to. We grew up in a large family– Rachel is the oldest of six and I am four and a half years behind her. Our parents divorced soon after I was born, each subsequently re-married and had two more kids, hence six of us. My sister was my constant during a childhood that was often confusing and sometimes chaotic. We didn’t always like each other, but we were allies in the subtle struggle of navigating the space between two families. And now, faced with the possibility of losing the only person who knew what that was like, it felt like my brain was shutting down. The cancer deluge had invaded every facet of my life, seeped into every crevice, under my skin, in my eyes and mouth and lungs. I couldn’t breath, let alone figure out which end was up and swim to the surface.
I’m not sure how long I lived under that wave. A year? Two years? The as-of-yet undiscovered laws that govern the quantum time warp phenomenon were still in effect. Everything existed only in the present. The past was irrelevant, the future too terrifyingly nebulous to consider.
I forgot how to interact with my friends as they continued with their normal lives and I spent nights sleeping on hospital chairs learning the intricacies of pharmaceutical pain management. There were some decidedly dark moments. My sister has an irreverently irrepressible sense of humor though, and quickly invented a lexicon of cancer jokes, much to the disapproval of the majority of medical personnel we encountered who, for some reason, were largely unamused by our banter. I had no idea what I was doing or how I was supposed to be in this new world. I felt desperately sad, inconsolably enraged, overwhelmed, confused and lonely. And right next to all of that was a sharp gratitude for every moment I spent with my sister and my family. After a while I could start to see a light somewhere above me and the blurry shapes of things that existed beyond the reach of cancer.
The wave has not receded. There are still dark moments. But there is also light, and I am learning how to swim.